Gareth Southgate will likely be without almost half of his squad for England’s two pre-Euro 2020 warm-up fixtures. The Three Lions are due to face Austria on Wednesday 2 June and Romania on Sunday 6 June in matches both held at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium. After that, they won’t play again until their Euro opener against Croatia on 13 June. However, a number of Southgate’s squad will now be missing for one or both of those games after three of the four teams to reach the European finals were English clubs.
The Champions League final will be contested by Manchester City and Chelsea on Saturday 29 May. The Europa League final is three days earlier and will see Manchester United face Villareal. Gareth Southgate is expected to announce his 26-man England squad on the 25 May. But considering how congested this season has been due to COVID-19, Southgate has already said that he wants to give each of his players at least a week off at the end of the season before joining up with England at St George’s Park.
If he gave those involved in the Europa League final a week’s rest, they’d only start training with the national team on Thursday 3 June — a day after the Austria match and just three days before facing Romania. For the City and Chelsea players involved in the Champions League final, it would mean joining up at SGP on Saturday 5 — the day before the final warm-up game against Romania and thus surely ruling them out of both.Embed from Getty Images
The England regulars who could be impacted by this include Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Kyle Walker, Ben Chilwell, Mason Mount, Reece James, Harry Maguire, Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw and Dean Henderson. Fringe players who he might also be thinking about including in his final 26-man squad include Mason Greenwood and Tammy Abraham.
With England U21s not scheduled to play during the summer international break, Southgate is now very likely to fill out his squad for the friendlies with some of them, and to involve them in training sessions at the beginning of June too. Just looking at the left-back position, for Chilwell and Shaw to be unavailable would leave the England boss with no natural options on the left flank. The option of playing Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka in that position is a possibility; he has played there for England before. But as he’s unlikely to be the first- or second-choice in that position come the Euros, it just shows how the two friendlies are now far from ideal tournament preparation.
No other country involved in this summer’s Euros has a situation anything like this. England’s increased dominance of European competitions in recent years shows signs that English players are of a higher calibre than perhaps five or ten years ago. Southgate will be delighted that his players get the opportunity to reach, play in, and win these big club matches. But his reasoning for wanting them to develop such experience is with an eye to making his England team more tournament-ready. If his players then can’t link up as planned ahead of a major tournament effectively on home soil, that becomes an inevitable source of frustration.Embed from Getty Images
England’s match-winner Harry Maguire admitted to EnglandFootball.org after their last match against Poland that despite victory, “We know we’ve got to improve and do better in areas.” Southgate and his disjointed side will find it much harder to improve ahead of that all-important Euros opener now that the line-ups in June’s two friendlies will look much-changed and decidedly weaker than usual. Maguire is of course one of the players who will be absent from at least one of the Austria and Romania tests.
There were two all-English European finals back in 2019, when Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final and Chelsea saw off Arsenal in the final of the Europa League. That had a disastrous effect on England’s Nations League Finals campaign, where Southgate opted not to start a single player who had been involved in the Champions League final for the semi-final against Holland. The Three Lions crashed out to the Dutch in extra-time, and then struggled to see off the Swiss in the third-place play-off. It took 120 sweltering minutes and penalties to eventually prevail.
This time, there are not a mere five days between the Champions League final and England’s tournament opener. There are 15. However, the extent to which these European finals will disrupt England’s two pre-tournament friendlies will concern Southgate. It means there is now no opportunity to put out anything remotely like his preferred XI in a match until that tournament opener against England’s 2018 World Cup conquerors Croatia. Either that or go back on his promise of a week’s rest for all. It’s bittersweet for Southgate. But then doesn’t that just sum up the job of being England manager?